Reimagining Engineering & CS at the ANU

The ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) is being Reimagined. Don’t take my word for it; listen to our fearless leader Elanor:

Basically, this Reimagine project is a huge investment from the ANU for CECS to grow, change, and to skate to where the puck is going to be in 2050 (technologically, societally, culturally, and more).

The search is on within CECS to identify Reimagine Fellows to champion various parts of this transformation. This is super-exciting, especially for interdisciplinary art/design/technology folks (like me). It’d be exciting if it was happening anywhere, but it’s particularly exciting that it’s happening where I am and that I might get a voice in shaping exactly what a “reimagined CECS” looks like.

Elanor, if you’re reading, I want to be a Reimagine Fellow. And since the EoI asked for “1000 words in any format you like”, here’s mine in the form of an FAQ1.

Ben’s Reimagine Fellow Application FAQ

In one sentence, why do you want to be a Reimagine Fellow?

I want to see more art2 happening in CECS; and I want to strengthen our education and research ties to the Schools of Art & Design, Music, and Digital Humanities.

What does that have to do with the Reimagine Project?

The role of an artist is to ask questions, not to answer them -Anton Chekhov

As Elanor says in the video above, we don’t even know what tomorrow’s problems are yet; so we need problem finders, not just problem solvers. Art and artists have a key role to play in this (just ask Chekhov).

Why are you the best person to do this?

I’ve made a career (so far) of deploying my technical/CS skills to artistic ends: in my livecoding (both building tools and doing live gigs), in starting the ANU Laptop Ensemble, in teaching our first-year art+code course COMP1720, etc.

Along the way I’ve built strong networks in these areas across the ANU campus and in the wider community, and I’ve always said that I was keen to engage with them more deeply—this is my chance.

So you’re just trying to score a grant to go off and do your own weird art thing?

Absolutely not. Being a Reimagine Fellow isn’t about doing something by yourself—it’s way too big a project for that. It’s about weaving something into the whole College3, so that by 2050 it affects the way everyone thinks.

What might this look like, concretely?

The Reimagine Project is big, hairy, and audacious, so it’s difficult to sketch out a detailed description or org chart. However, here are a few ideas about what it might look like.

In the short term…

  • a CECS-supported “Reimagine residency” (starting asap!) to support artists to get involved and help us figure out what a Reimagined CECS looks like

  • a new code/creativity/culture major (at both undergraduate and masters level) where students take courses from within CECS, the ANU School of Art & Design, and the ANU School of Music

  • new courses within CECS on e.g. algorithmic music composition, creative making, AI/Deep Learning Art, subversive computing/designing for evil4

  • more PhD students doing practice-led research on interdisciplinary art/CS/engineering projects

  • encouraging all CECS academics to engage with their peers and the wider world by making and exhibiting beautiful/interesting/challenging things, not just through journal papers

In the medium/long term…

  • a centre of excellence for digital arts/music/multimedia research, teaching and creative practice (co-hosted by CECS and the College of Arts & Social Sciences)

  • a thoroughly non-traditional project-based “creative tech” masters program, with no classes, no heirarchies, just a bunch of brilliant students set loose with duct tape, gaming GPUs, a giant bag of sensors & actuators, soldering irons, a 3D printer, oh my. (Geoff Hinchcliffe and I have discussed this—we’re both thrilled and terrified at the prospect. And I love what the 3AI master’s program is shaping up to be, and am keen to be a part of it.)

  • incorporating into every course5 the option to create and submit a “creative work” to demonstrate attainment of the learning outcomes (🤔 really Ben?)

I also look forward to having the time to think through what a deeply artistic CECS looks like. I’m sure that in collaboration with the other Reimagine Fellows and the rest of the design team we can come up even more ideas.

How does this further the broader goals of the Reimagine Project…

…in research?

Artists have always been at the vanguard of building new things (or seeing/using old things in new ways). If an artist has an idea in their head for what they want to create, but the tools to realise it don’t exist yet, that artist is intrinsically motivated to figure out how to make it happen.

I also want to be clear that my pitch here isn’t to view the arts as a technical problem that needs to be solved by engineers and computer scientists: “hey artists, thanks for the last few thousand years, we’ll take it from here”. We’ve already got too much technochauvinism in tech. Instead, the pitch is that a newly-Reimagined CECS can include artists in shaping what the computer scientists and engineers of 2050 look like, so that it’s not an “us and them”.

Some of the top research institutions in the world are asking real questions in the fields of creative technology, digital art, music and design: have a look at the list below.

…in education?

That Chekhov quote above really nails it. For some students, being asked to make something creative/artistic is what it takes to flick the switch to go beyond the “what boxes do I need to tick for me to get a P/CR/D/HD” mindset to actually asking the right questions. I see this sometimes in COMP1720, and it’s one of the most enjoyable things about teaching that course.

More broadly, I want to see more dreamers, doodlers and “creatives”6 study engineering or CS at uni. Too often they feel like they have to choose between “pursuing the dream” or selling out and studying something boring & pragmatic, and I fear that we (CECS) miss out on some brilliant students because of this. I want these students to know that they can pursue their creative dreams, and in doing so they’ll be doing top-class engineering/CS/design work.

…in outreach?

Because of my livecoding I get asked to do outreach stuff all the time (you’re welcome, CECS marketing team 😉). I know why I get asked: DJing with code is so different, it’s a great hook for engaging folks who might not have thought that combining code & musical creativity in that way was possible.

…in culture?

The Reimagine Project isn’t just about doing the same things under a different org-chart. It’s about changing the culture of Engineering & Computing research and practice. While the stereotypes about nerdy engineers and computer types isn’t necessarily fair in my experience, there’s no smoke without a fire, and there are some things we need to do better. Incorporating the arts and creative expression deep within our education, research and outreach work will change the way we communicate with the outside world, but it’ll also change the sorts of people we attract, and welcoming new perspectives into CECS is another way we can enact cultural change.

Isn’t this treading on the toes of the School of Art & Design (and the School of Music, and …)?

No—in fact we need to work with our colleagues in those places to make this stuff happen. I already co-supervise PhD students with Mitchell & Geoff from the School or Art & Design, and Terhi from the Centre for Digital Humanities Research, and I run the ANU Laptop Ensemble with Alec from the School of Music. And I want to see more of this type of cross-supervision across these parts of campus.

Actually, this “treading on toes” question looms over the whole Reimagine Project. I think the best way forward is to partner with the other parts of campus to bring their expertise and smoosh it together with ours.

Concretely, that means:

  • sending CECS coursework students to take courses in other parts of campus (as part of majors/minors/electives, etc.) as well as the other way around
  • co-employing academics across Colleges in joint positions
  • increasing our to participation in the ANU’s interdisciplinary HDR programs like ICCR

Where in the world is this already happening?

Here’s a few places, including what each place says about their goals (from the marketing copy on their own website). Many (but not all) of these labs/groups are in CS/Engineering Schools, or at least in design schools.

The Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) is a multi-disciplinary facility where composers and researchers work together using computer-based technology both as an artistic medium and as a research tool.

The MIT Media Lab is an interdisciplinary research lab that encourages the unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.

The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University is a laboratory for atypical, anti-disciplinary, and inter-institutional research at the intersections of arts, science, technology and culture.

SensiLab is a technology-driven, design-focused research lab based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

The Creativity & Cognition Studios at the University of Technology Sydney is an internationally recognised multi-disciplinary environment for the advancement and understanding of practice in digital media and the arts.

NYU’s ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program) is a two-year graduate program located in the Tisch School of the Arts whose mission is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies.

The Centre for Digital Music (c4dm) at Queen Mary University of London is a world-leading multidisciplinary research group in the field of Music & Audio Technology.

The Embodied AudioVisual Interaction (EAVI) group at Goldsmiths is a research group focused on embodied interaction with sound and image.

The School for Poetic Computation is an artist run school in New York that was founded in 2013. A small group of students and faculty work closely to explore the intersections of code, design, hardware and theory — focusing especially on artistic intervention. It’s a hybrid of a school, residency and research group.

The Arts and Creativity Lab at the National University of Singapore provides an environment for arts-driven research and technology development, as well as artistic practice and experimentation related to scientific research methods and results

Has the ANU ever had anything like this before?

Sure, for example this, and it was amazing. The story about why ACAT is no longer around is long, and I’ve only really ever heard it second/third-hand, and I’m not proposing to resurrect ACAT as part of the Reimagine Project. But it’s important to know one’s history.

Sounds like a huge job, Ben—how are you going to manage it?

Not on my own, that’s for sure. Only by building up our capacity in these areas. As an example, Dr. Charles Martin is just about to start as a new Lecturer in RSCS, and he’s a computer musician (apps and ML for group musical improvisation). The campus also has many other interdisciplinary artists who have been hiding their lights under bushels—I want to give them a banner to rally to.

We need to think big, and I look forward to a day where there’s a long list of academic staff & PhD students exploring new avenues for technologically and culturally sophisticated artistic practice within CECS and the broader ANU campus. That’s what I want us to be famous for.

Do you really get asked these questions frequently, Ben?

No.

So is it really fair to call it an FAQ?

Probably not. Sorry.

Footnotes

  1. At least it’s not a haiku. Or a limerick. 

  2. Defining “art” is beyond the scope of this blog post, obviously. But I don’t just mean it in the narrow “high/fine art” sense, although I don’t mean it in the “all the humanities” sense either. Think making music, drawing pictures, writing stories—but with an element of technology in the mix. 

  3. You could even say “weaving it into the College’s DNA”. But that’d be dumb. Institutions don’t have DNA… except maybe RSB

  4. I’d love to get Genevieve to write & teach that one. 

  5. I kindof want to wriggle out and say most courses, but I also really want to see what an artistic submission in lieu of a final exam looks like for COMP3600

  6. Although I reject the Romantic notion that “creatives” are some sort of rarefied “other”, conduits to some deep wellspring of hidden creative mojo from the other side. We’re all just humans, constructing and engaging in cultural practices with this stuff, building on what went before.